After the Birmingham debacle, Chelsea move on to another cup competition and another opponent that will prove a difficult challenge, albeit one that presents a different set of problems.
Against Birmingham, I believed that we would struggle simply because of the organization of their back line and the inability to break teams down through the center. Statistically and performance-wise, that’s how the match played out.
Napoli are an altogether different proposition in terms of skill level, but they are by no means any easier to break down. Make no mistake; I believe this will be our most difficult challenge to date.
Without further delay, here’s what I think about this fixture.
1) Napoli are far and away the best team that we’ve seen all season.
No disrespect to the Manchester clubs and Tottenham, but the argument can be made that the overall quality of play in the Premier League is worse than it has been in previous seasons. While the matches have been entertaining, few of the matches could be considered well-played. Most involved many nervy moments and a lot of mental and individual errors.
That being said, in terms of overall quality of play, Napoli are the best team we’ve faced. After watching them, it’s no secret why they got out of that Champions League group. They play very organized football with enough flair and creativity to give any side problems, especially teams that like to employ two strikers or a withdrawn forward player. It’s a difficult system to break down, which leads me to number 2.
2) Napoli do not play a traditional 3-5-2, but a system that blends the Bielsa ideas with Italian pragmatism.
The first thing that jumped out at me watching the tape is how effectively Walter Mazzarri has put different ideas to work. Their three center back-formation is non-traditional in the sense that he plays a bit more attacking than you would expect. However, his team doesn’t lack for quality in defending either, and he sets his team out with the intent of forcing you to play wide. You could say that it’s more 3-4-2-1 than a 3-5-2. The crux of the method is putting two holding midfielders with skill on the ball, Gokhan Inler and Walter Gargano, to hold the center of the pitch, allowing a traditional Italian tridente to attack, in Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Edinson Cavani.
What makes this formation so devastating though, is the abilities of Inler and Gargano to not only break up play in the center, but to distribute the ball forward. Add to that the fact that Paolo Cannavaro plays more like a libero in attack than a traditional sweeper, and you have a very tight defensive formation with enough magicians to create the goals.\
3) Forget about scouting Cavani for future transfer, the player we should be looking at is Marek Hamsik.
For a midfield that lacks creativity the way that we do, Marek Hamsik just might be someone to look at. As I mentioned, he forms part of the tridente attack for Napoli, but he’s not really a forward player. He’s a traditional midfielder with an eye for a killer pass. In the Napoli system, he plays in advance of the two holding midfield players, with licence to roam behind the striker as a trequartista. He is very good at that. Cavani might get the headlines with his goals, but Hamsik, along with Inler and Gargano, are what make this Napoli side tick.
4) In order for us to win, we must play much more disciplined than we have, and our midfield must show an ability to play through the middle.
One thing that you can say about our team is that we have no trouble getting the ball into the wide areas. Against a 3-at-the-back formation, that’s very important. However, to have a hope of beating that system, the ball must eventually come back to the center, and the central midfielders must find the gaps between the CB’s.
That’s something that our midfield has been abysmal at, and I think it’s reflected in the lack of goals that come from the striker position and the lack of goals that come from anything besides crosses into the box. It’s becoming a real problem
Napoli are a team that will concede the possession to you wide, because they will press high up the pitch to give their back line time to adjust. Rarely do their fullback’s get caught out of position, so when they’re defending, they appear to actually be playing five across the back line.
If our midfield cannot find a way to create through the middle, we will struggle to score because you cannot play a second striker against their formation. If you do, it leaves you horribly outnumbered in the midfield, and they will strike swiftly.
5) At this point, the “Drogba or Torres” debate is a completely moot argument.
Against Birmingham, people will point to Drogba’s influence on the pitch as a reason for his inclusion, and will point to Torres’ 15 touches in 45 minutes as a reason for him to be dropped. That argument is completely moot. I have not seen a graphical representation, but I fail to believe that Drogba had any more touches than Torres in the second half.
Furthermore, people will cite Torres being everywhere but in front of goal where he can score, but what do you really expect when he’s not getting the ball? If you watch closely, Torres never gets the ball when he’s central because we seem to only be looking to play down the sides of the opponent. Any striker is forced to start roaming from the middle when he’s being starved of any sort of service. It’s no coincidence that neither Drogba nor Torres are anywhere near the top of the scoring charts, but other players in other positions are.
We seem to have a lot of midfielders and wingers that would rather score the goals than create them, essentially squeezing the spaces that the center forwards operate in. It’s a real problem because it makes us predictable.
That being said, I have no hopes for this match. Sadly, I think we’ll fail to score at San Paolo, meaning we will have to keep a clean sheet at home in the second leg, if we’re still in the tie. I’m predicting a 2-0 victory by Napoli, though I could easily see them putting 3 or 4 past us. We just aren’t built to break down sides that require us to play wide, but look for central gaps. They’ll be happy to give us all the possession we want in the wide areas.